what was it like?
It was a surprise, of
course. It's supposed to be. The day before 11 April 1987, we finished
up all the pre-solo paperwork, so I knew it was coming soon. I saw
the cirrostratus across the moon that night, and wondered whether
I'd get my chance before the bad weather headed our way. I was really
hoping, but I couldn't tell for sure. I think the fact that I decided
not to buy film, and to leave my camera at home probably turned
the trick. The morning was a bit hazy, 15 knots of wind out of 070.
We went up for circuits. (Yeah, circuits. In America, they call
it a "pattern". It's the "circuit". Or "touch
and goes".) Some of them were troublesome; we kept gaining
on people in front of us, and had to overshoot several times. A
few times I was far too far out on downwind, and came in pretty
low (not very smart over the water). Seems that you don't *have*
to cut the power before turning base; you can drop it back on base
it that's appropriate. I eventually stopped edging up on everybody
else's circuits...I think, in fact, there wasn't anybody else in
the circuit by the time we ended the hour.
On a couple of approaches,
I was futzing around with a perfectly acceptable power setting for
no good reason; on another I just didn't keep flaring, and waited
far too late to drop the power back. But the last two landings,
on 06 with a real steady cross-wing, set down beautifully. Crosswind
from the right, hold the right wing down just so, smooth flare,
nose rising to the horizon and *staying there*, right on the centreline.
"That's my girl," Jeff smiles. I break into a wide grin.
(Jeff's first language
was Greek, and he is a fluent Francophone native of Montreal. His
praise was sparing, and his syntax used to confuse me: i.e. "She's
too high, the nose." A very smart guy, though; a graduate of
McGill University, a mechanical engineer with an aerospace specialty,
who, at 24, desperately wanted to be a civilian test pilot, or work
for the airlines. He very quickly got on with a regional carrier.
I must have been the only student he'd ever had that really got
excited by ground briefings taught right from First Principles of
Physics, instead of spending most of the briefing wondering why
we couldn't be in the plane.)
We take the plane in,
and discuss the business about the move into slow flight on base.
It feels so strange, flying circuits now; while we talk some, it's
much less on these last few flights. I've been flying as though
he wasn't really there, more and more absorbed, trying to take in
all the things that a good pilot takes care of. I turn her around
to park, go through the shutdown, and wait for Jeff to get out to
push the plane back onto the edge of the apron. He gets out, smiles
warmly and with mischief, and says, "Want to take her up by
I am genuinely surprised;
I figured that was it for the day. I say, no, incredulous, and feeling
just a bit unready. I push from my mind all the things I've done
in the last hour that were less than perfect, the strong power adjustments,
the overshoots, and manage to find my medical/student pilot permit.
Jeff signs it, gives it back to me. "Remember, the plane will
feel lighter this time. Just go up for one circuit, and come in.
And tell the tower it's your first solo. OK?" Now I am totally
absorbed. I must have done the startup checks, but I don't entirely
remember doing them. Ground control does not remark on my asking
taxi clearance for "...one solo circuit", and they clear
me to 08 via Alfa and Bravo. I turn right, towards Charlie/Delta.
"Juliet Mike, you're going the wrong way." (Canadian aircraft
have no numbers, just letters, starting with C-F___ or C-G___. Now
you can also ask for the moral equivalent of Vanity Plates, but
that's very new.)
This does not faze me.
I am concentrating too hard to be embarassed. I try to decide whether
I need to do runup, if I've just come down, and decide that of course
I do. I position myself into the wind, but way too far into the
middle of the taxiway and back from the hold line, as the two aircraft
in front of me depart. I turn around again, and head for the little
corner, just where I wanted to be in the first place, do the runup,
get cleared into position and then for takeoff. I am off in no time.
Must have used all of 300 feet for that takeoff, if that.
I am prepared for Quebec
Juliet Mike to leap skyward, but she just lifts herself from that
runway with a grace that reminds me of the sunlight flooding the
cockpit. It isn't so much the lightness of the aircraft I notice
(Jeff is only 5'6"/150); it's the flood of sunlight in the
aircraft where that increasingly silent person has been for so many
weeks. I try not to look over to the right seat. I know he's not
there. I don't need to look to believe it. It just like every other
Climb to 750 feet, right
turn; tower has just called QJM into position for takeoff. I tell
him I'm on crosswind; he pauses and tells me that wasn't for me.
Edge of the island ahead, turn onto downwind just as I level out
at 1250...and pause for just an instant to look down 1000 feet,
perfectly parallel to 4500 feet of runway at that gorgeous airport
with splendid green grass set in brilliant blue water and the bluest
of skies...and snap back!
Downwind checks, woman.
Get with it. Primer locked, Master on, mags on both, mixture rich,
flaps set, fuel on, check belt, wiggle brake pedals. Time to turn.
I decide to square up with 08. It's my favourite runway. Nobody
is ahead of me in the circuit; several people are waiting to take
off. I pull back the power, nose up, turn base. "Quebec Juliet
Mike, do you want 06 or 08?" "Quebec Juliet Mike, I'd
like 08." "Quebec Juliet Mike cleared to land on 08."
"Quebec Juliet Mike cleared to land on 08," I reply.
I turn to final approach
and suffer a moment's confusion: too far from the numbers; BE SURE
-- which one is 08? There's nobody on one of them, and three people
waiting for the other; why wouldn't he have told me to go 06 and
not keep those nice people waiting? Because you * asked * for 08,
that's why. Yes, the nice big one, your favourite, that *is* 08.
Coming down, down, VASIS just right, all the way down. The plane
about to take off is out of the way, and I'm coming in beautifully,
cut the power and flare right on the numbers.
We float smoothly, steadily,
QJM and I, cowling firmly touching the horizon and not wavering
anywhere. Will we ever land, I wonder idly, not caring. I'm not
changing a thing; it'a all perfect, and QJM will bring me home when
she decides to. That every man should have so gentle a mistress!
I can scarcely feel the touchdown...and not for lack of trying to.
It was *That Good*.
I didn't feel scared
while I was up there, not apprehensive, not unprepared. I was pure
concentration. I was one with QJM, the sky, the wind, the sun. There
wasn't a person in a plane up there. There was a single living,
humming breathing, whirring, purring creature. And it was over.
Check time down: 10 minutes. 0.4 showing on the Hobbs. Jeff walked
out to meet me. "Congratulations!" and I gave him a hug.
It was nice. "Nice," you say? "Nice"? The most
memorable moment of a pilot's career, and you call it "nice"?
Yeah, I wondered about that. Tower didn't congratulate me, though
some of the guys at Central knew from the grin that I'd had my moment.
My flying time finished
just before the 10 a.m. ground school, so I landed, did the log
books, and headed straight for class. (The place where I learned
to fly, nobody ripped up your shirt-tail and pinned it on the wall,
or threw you into the lake to mark the occasion. The one ceremonial
observance was unavailable at that moment...but more on that later.)
Every time a new student
goes solo, I think it brings a bit of that back to all the guys
who spend their days teaching and flying. I wondered whether the
fact that I didn't have to be truly pried off the ceiling meant
that I didn't really enjoy it. I decided, no, not at all. The really
fine things that I do in my life, the ones that I'm relly proud
of, are just things I do. And I have the quiet joy that rises up
from inside, slowly, slowly, and eventually fills all my senses.
These are very private moments, ones in which I know assurance within
my own self. They are very much solo celebrations in every sense.
This is not to say that they can't be shared, but that I don't need
anyone to make a fuss or throw a party when I've done something
that good, that right. The fact that I did it, it was my best, and
I know it was good, is the primary celebration.
When ground school was
over for the day, I finally hopped back on my bicycle, bought a
tape of the instrumental version of St.Elmo's Fire (in retrospect,
because that's the music the Canadian Forces Snowbirds used for
their routines), opened all the windows in my apartment, cranked
it up loud on the stereo, sat with sunlight streaming into the place,
and just cried buckets for joy.
The funniest part of
the whole solo was that Central Airways used to keep a Polaroid
camera on hand to capture that big solo smile. When Jeff turned
the plane into the sun for the picture, and I had gracefully flung
the MA-1 over one shoulder and glowed... ...there was not a film
to be had in all of Toronto Island. I was tickled. See, I'd even
dressed for the occasion. I figure my Dad was probably more disappointed
than anyone. I don't need it on film. The important parts will long
outlast the best chemicals Polaroid has to offer.